The “audacity and humility” of getting smarter

Ginny Steel

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Can things really be smart?

Is a thermostat programmed to change based on time of day and weather conditions “smarter”? How about a chat-bot that answers your customer service questions? What about an email feature that automatically sorts messages based on your past activities?

In many cases when we hear “smart [thing],” it’s a synonym for some kind of software automation based on sensors, data collection, or connected devices. Nearly half of Forbes17 Top Enterprise Tech Trends for 2017” relate to ideas of “smarter” services, apps, products, infrastructure, and lifestyles. The assumption is that by automating as many aspects of a process as possible, we’ll get better results.

I’m not convinced that’s the case.

Is “smart” more than a metaphor?

I understand—as I’m sure you do—that to say that an appliance or car or work process is “smart” is a metaphor. We know it’s simply an object built with some additional level of computer processing and/or connectivity. A “smart thermostat” can’t tell that you’ve put on a blanket because you were cold. It’s just reacting to preprogrammed instructions. It’s no “smarter” than a DVR that you’ve set up to record Game of Thrones.

But the metaphors we use—especially as they relate to the work of libraries—are important. Our users look to us to help them actually become smarter people. That’s a core function of librarianship. So when we say something is “smarter,” we need to be sure we don’t just mean “automated” or “computerized.” If we think we’re being smarter just by adding some technology and automating a task or two, we’re selling our users short.

The question of “what is a smarter library?” is an important and exciting one, and that’s why I’m delighted “The Smarter Library” is the theme we’ve adopted for all three upcoming OCLC Regional Council Meetings.

What makes a library “smarter”?

As we prepared to plan for these events, we wanted to really dig down into what we think we need to do to make libraries truly smarter…not just “more automated.” This isn’t about technology for technology’s sake. It’s about focusing on the unique value propositions that libraries provide and working to be even better at those things that motivate us as librarians and set our institutions apart.

We narrowed down a wide field of possible themes to the following:

  • Reimagine customer experiences: Be more personalized, effective, and intuitive
  • Leverage data: Improve services and outcomes
  • Confirm professional values: Strengthen the communities we serve
  • Innovate continuously: Keep pace with change

You’ll notice two things right off the bat, I hope.

First, each of the themes has both a “what” and a “why.” It’s important that any changes we make are goal-oriented, or we won’t be doing smarter things, we’ll just be doing other things.

Second, only one of the four topics—“leverage data”—is explicitly about technology. And even then…not really. We’ve had data in libraries for centuries. We used the term “metadata” before it became a popular buzzword. The point is that while technology will certainly be important to the “how” of these efforts, it’s not at the heart of what we do as librarians and in our libraries.

Audacity and humility

I really like what Margaret Stewart, Vice President of Design at Facebook, has to say about designing user experiences for groups of people:

[It] requires a bizarre combination of two things, audacity and humility. Audacity to believe that what you’re doing is important, and humility because it’s not about the designer’s portfolio, but about the people they are designing for.

It feels to me as though Stewart is talking directly to those of us who work in libraries as well as those working on user interface design for software.

I want us to be audacious. That’s why I became a librarian—to help people improve their lives. How audacious is that? But it’s also a humble calling when we “confirm our professional values.” Because no matter how good we get at creating great new services (or automating old ones), it doesn’t count as “smarter” if it doesn’t help move the ball forward for the communities we serve.

I’m excited to hear what my colleagues have to share on this subject. It reaches right into the heart of OCLC’s mission as well as that of libraries.

I hope you can join us in Baltimore, Tokyo, or Edinburgh for the beginning of this important conversation.